Word of the Day / Hadarim: Cedar Cone Gets Crushed by Citrus in Struggle to Oust Dionysus

The origins of the etrog as a sacred fruit on Sukkoth have more to do with an ancient mistake than affection for the new fruit.

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The Hebrew word for citrus is ha-da-RIM, and while these fruit originating in the Orient were not known to the Hebrew during biblical times - their name comes from the Bible.

It all starts with Leviticus. As part of the Sukkoth holiday, the people of Israel are commanded: “Ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.” (23:40)

The King James Bible translators got this one totally wrong, but they aren’t alone - so did most people until the 20th Century.

What the text really says is “the fruit of the dar tree.”

What is a dar? Well, we can’t be completely sure, but it is quite reasonable that this was a cedar, and the "fruit" is a conifer cone.

Cedar cones were used in sacred rites throughout the ancient world, from India to Assyria, where they were a central part of an autumn ceremony bearing close resemblance to Sukkoth. In ancient Greece they were used in the worship of Dionysus.

Enter the etrog

When the Persians conquered the region from the Babylonians, they brought over the first citrus Jews ever met - the citron, or as it is called in Hebrew, the etrog.

We first hear of etrogim during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, when he blasphemed a part of the Sukkoth ritual and was pummeled with etrogim. So that we know that by that time, conifer cones had been replaced by etrogim as a part of the four species. But why?

This must have been an attempt by one of the Hasmonean kings that preceded Alexander Jannaeus to stamp out the Dionysian cult that took hold in Judea during the time the Greeks held sway over the land. Since the conifer cones were associated with the Greeks, they had to go, and were replaced by the recent arrival – the etrogim.

Confusion takes hold

By the time of the Talmud, the history of this switch was long forgotten. What was really “fruit of the dar tree” was misinterpreted as “hadar tree fruit”. How could this happen?

In Hebrew the definitive article prefix ha means “the”. Here instead of "the dar" it was read as hadar – the ha became part of the tree's name.

In later generations, when more types of citrus arrived from the east (oranges and lemons at first, the rest much later) - they were also seen as species of "hadar", though not for the purpose of Sukkot’s Four Species. That was reserved for the etrog.

The first half of the 20th Century saw a boom of the citrus industry in Palestine. The expression perot hadar – citrus fruit - was truncated to hadarim, which was made official by the Committee of the Hebrew Language in 1946. And thus to this day we call citrus fruit hadarim.

In the coming weeks, we will be discussing the Hebrew names for the citrus family, starting with the king of them all - the orange. Stay tuned.

Parse the word "the": This is an etrog, a species of citrus - pri hadar - that supplanted the cedar cone in Jewish rituals, because of a misunderstanding.Credit: Emil Salman
The cone of a Lebanon cedar tree.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Marble sarcophagus showing a Dionysian procession: the deceased could have been an adherent to the cult. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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